Alfa Romeo 156 Sportwagon 2.0 JTS

Moving into my 30s, I started to get into mountain biking again and took a break from motorsport. My Eunos Roadster was still reliable, but it was completely impractical for biking trips with friends.

I decided to get an estate and had always fancied the idea of an Alfa Romeo, so opted for a 156 Sportwagon. This was a great car — with the relatively rare 2.0 JTS petrol engine it was both powerful and very smooth. It had all the toys of the day including a full leather interior, dual-zone climate control and the VDC dynamic vehicle control programme.

The VDC was probably the most impressive part of this car. I’d previously driven many cars with traction control, but all of those reduced engine power when they detected wheel slip. The Alfa pretty much did the opposite, applying the brakes to only the slipping wheels and sending all the power to the wheel(s) with grip.

Applying full throttle mid-corner was like being fired out of a slingshot, with the inside front wheel getting braked while the outside wheel got all 165 horsepower. Similarly, throwing the 156 into a roundabout way too fast was a lot of fun — a combination of gyroscopes and independent four-wheel braking meant that the car went exactly in the direction the steering wheel was pointed, even if that meant a four-wheel drift. Keeping up with a Scooby or Evo 6 in a family estate through the twisties always raised a few eyebrows.

So why did I sell it? Because, matching all Alfa stereotypes, the car was littered with electrical gremlins. At least once a month the screen would light up with the dreaded “Motor control system failure” error with the helpful hint, “Go to dealer”. Some times it would jump straight into ‘limp home’ mode with virtually no engine power. Other times it would (alarmingly!) give me a few unexpected seconds of wide open throttle before shutting down. At least a dozen times, Alfa technicians tried to fix it. They replaced the throttle position sensor, the intake manifold and various other parts, but the fault kept coming back, so the car had to go.

Between my Roadster and the Yaris we had over a decade of trouble-free Japanese motoring, so after the mega-fail of Italian motoring it was time for another Japanese car. Enter the Lexus IS200.